Elon’s Plan

Abraham Lincoln was pleased with himself when he came up with the line:

—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Fair—it’s a good line.

The whole idea of “of the people, by the people, for the people” is the centerpiece of democracy.

Unfortunately, “the people” are unpleasant. So democracy ends up being unpleasant. But unpleasant tends to be a dream compared to the alternatives. Elon talked about this:

I think that the protection of the collective is important. I think it was Churchill who said, “Democracy’s the worst of all systems of government, except for all the others.” It’s fine if you have Plato’s incredible philosopher king as the king, sure. That would be fine. Now, most dictators do not turn out that way. They tend to be quite horrible.

In other words, democracy is like escaping from a monster by hiding in a sewer.

There are plenty of times in life when it’s a good strategy to take a risk in order to give yourself a chance for the best possible outcome, but when the stakes are at their absolute highest, the right move is usually to play it safe. Power is one of those times. That’s why, even though democracy essentially guarantees a certain level of mediocrity, Elon says, “I think you’re hard-pressed to find many people in the United States who, no matter what they think of any given president, would advocate for a dictatorship.”

And since Elon sees AI as the ultimate power, he sees AI development as the ultimate “play it safe” situation. Which is why his strategy for minimizing existential AI risk seems to essentially be that AI power needs to be of the people, by the people, for the people.

To try to implement that concept in the realm of AI, Elon has approached the situation from multiple angles.

For the by the people and for the people parts, he and Sam Altman created OpenAI—a self-described “non-profit AI research company, discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence.”

Normally, when humanity is working on something new, it starts with the work of a few innovative pioneers. When they succeed, an industry is born and the Human Colossus jumps on board to build upon what the pioneers started, en masse.

But what if the thing those pioneers were working on was a magic wand that might give whoever owned it immense, unbreakable power over everyone else—including the power to prevent anyone else from making a magic wand? That would be kinda stressful, right?

Well that’s how Elon views today’s early AI development efforts. And since he can’t stop people from trying to make a magic wand, his solution is to create an open, collaborative, transparent magic wand development lab. When a new breakthrough innovation is discovered in the lab, instead of making it a tightly-kept secret like the other magic wand companies, the lab publishes the innovation for anyone to see or borrow for their own magic-wand-making efforts.

On one hand, this could have drawbacks. Bad guys are out there trying to make a magic wand too, and you really don’t want the first magic wand to end up in the hands of a bad guy. And now the bad guys’ development efforts can benefit from all of the innovations being published by the lab. This is a serious concern.

But the lab also boosts the efforts of millions of other people trying to create magic wands. This generates a ton of competition for the secretive early pioneers, and it becomes less likely that any one inventor can create a magic wand long before others also do. More likely is that when the first magic wand is eventually created, there are thousands of others near completion as well—different wands, with different capabilities, made by different people, for different reasons. If we have to have magic wands on Earth, Elon thinks, let’s at least make sure they’re in the hands of a large number of people across the world—not one all-powerful sorcerer. Or as he puts it:

Essentially, if everyone’s from planet Krypton, that’s great. But if only one of them is Superman and Superman also has the personality of Hitler, then we’ve got a problem.

More broadly, a single pioneer’s magic wand would likely have been built to serve that inventor’s own needs and purposes. But by turning the future magic wand industry into a collective effort, a wide variety of needs and purposes will have a wand made for them, making it more likely that the capabilities of the world’s aggregate mass of magic wands will overarchingly represent the needs of the masses.

You know, like democracy.

It worked fine for Nikola Tesla and Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers and Alan Turing to jump-start revolutions by jumping way out ahead of the pack. But when you’re dealing with the invention of something unthinkably powerful, you can’t sit back and let the pioneers kick things off—it’s leaving too much to chance.

OpenAI is an effort to democratize the creation of AI, to get the entire Human Colossus working on it during its pioneer phase. Elon sums it up:

AI is definitely going to vastly surpass human abilities. To the degree that it is linked to human will, particularly the sum of a large number of humans, it would be an outcome that is desired by a large number of humans, because it would be a function of their will.

So now you’ve maybe got early human-level-or-higher AI superpower being made by the people, for the people—which brings down the likelihood that the world’s AI ends up in the hands of a single bad guy or a tightly-controlled monopoly.

Now all we’ve got left is of the people.

This one should be easy. Remember, the Human Colossus is creating superintelligent AI for the same reason it created cars, factory machines, and computers—to serve as an extension of itself to which it can outsource work. Cars do our walking, factory machines do our manufacturing, and computers take care of information storage, organization, and computation.

Creating computers that can think will be our greatest invention yet—they’ll allow us to outsource our most important and high-impact work. Thinking is what built everything we have, so just imagine the power that will come from building ourselves a superintelligent thinking extension. And extensions of the people by definition belong to the people—they’re of the people.

There’s just this one thing—

High-caliber AI isn’t quite like those other inventions. The rest of our technology is great at the thing it’s built to do, but in the end, it’s a mindless machine with narrow intelligence. The AI we’re trying to build will be smart, like a person—like a ridiculously smart person. It’s a fundamentally different thing than we’ve ever made before—so why would we expect normal rules to apply?

It’s always been an automatic thing that the technology we make inherently belongs to us—it’s such an obvious point that it almost seems silly to make it. But could it be that if we make something smarter than a person, it might not be so easy to control?

Could it be that a creation that’s better at thinking than any human on Earth might not be fully content to serve as a human extension, even if that’s what it was built to do?

We don’t know how issues will actually manifest—but it seems pretty safe to say that yes, these possibilities could be.

And if what could be turns out to actually bewe may have a serious problem on our hands.

Because, as the human history case study suggests, when there’s something on the planet way smarter than everyone else, it can be a really bad thing for everyone else. And if AI becomes the new thing on the planet that’s way smarter than everyone else, and it turns out not to clearly belong to us—it means that it’s its own thing. Which drops us into the category of “everyone else.”

So people gaining monopolistic control of AI is its own problem—and one that OpenAI is hoping to solve. But it’s a problem that may pale in comparison to the prospect of AI being uncontrollable.

This is what keeps Elon up at night. He sees it as only a matter of time before superintelligent AI rises up on this planet—and when that happens, he believes that it’s critical that we don’t end up as part of “everyone else.”

That’s why, in a future world made up of AI and everyone else, he thinks we have only one good option:

To be AI.


Remember before when I said that there were two things about wizard hats we had to wrap our heads around?

1) The intensely mind-bending idea

2) The super ridiculously intensely mind-bending idea

This is where #2 comes in.

These two ideas are the two things Elon means when he refers to the wizard hat as a digital tertiary layer in our brains. The first, as we discussed, is the concept that a whole-brain interface is kind of the same thing as putting our devices in our heads—effectively making your brain the device. Like this:

Your devices give you cyborg superpowers and a window into the digital world. Your brain’s wizard hat electrode array is a new brain structure, joining your limbic system and cortex.

But your limbic system, cortex, and wizard hat are just the hardware systems. When you experience your limbic system, it’s not the physical system you’re interacting with—it’s the information flow within it. It’s the activity of the physical system that bubbles up in your consciousness, making you feel angry, scared, horny, or hungry.

Same thing for your cortex. The napkin wrapped around your brain stores and organizes information, but it’s the information itself that you experience when you think something, see something, hear something, or feel something. The visual cortex in itself does nothing for you—it’s the stream of photon information flowing through it that gives you the experience of having a visual cortex. When you dig in your memory to find something, you’re not searching for neurons, you’re searching for information stored in the neurons.

The limbic system and cortex themselves are just gray matter. The flow of activity within the gray matter is what forms your familiar internal characters, the monkey brain and the rational human brain.

So what does that mean about your digital tertiary layer?

It means that while what’s actually in your brain is the physical device—the electrode array itself—the component of the tertiary layer that you’ll experience and get to know as a character is the information that flows through the array.

And just like the feelings and urges of the limbic system and the thoughts and chattering voice of the cortex all feel to you like parts of you—like your inner essence—the activity that flows through your wizard hat will feel like a part of you and your essence.

Elon’s vision for the Wizard Era is that among the wizard hat’s many uses, one of its core purposes will be to serve as the interface between your brain and a cloud-based customized AI system. That AI system, he believes, will become as present a character in your mind as your monkey and your human characters—and it will feel like you every bit as much as the others do. He says:

I think that, conceivably, there’s a way for there to be a tertiary layer that feels like it’s part of you. It’s not some thing that you offload to, it’s you.

This makes sense on paper. You do most of your “thinking” with your cortex, but then when you get hungry, you don’t say, “My limbic system is hungry,” you say, “I’m hungry.” Likewise, Elon thinks, when you’re trying to figure out the solution to a problem and your AI comes up with the answer, you won’t say, “My AI got it,” you’ll say, “Aha! I got it.” When your limbic system wants to procrastinate and your cortex wants to work, a situation I might be familiar with, it doesn’t feel like you’re arguing with some external being, it feels like a singular you is struggling to be disciplined. Likewise, when you think up a strategy at work and your AI disagrees, that’ll be a genuine disagreement and a debate will ensue—but it will feel like an internal debate, not a debate between you and someone else that just happens to take place in your thoughts. The debate will feel like thinking.

It makes sense on paper.

But when I first heard Elon talk about this concept, it didn’t really feel right. No matter how hard I tried to get it, I kept framing the idea as something familiar—like an AI system whose voice I could hear in my head, or even one that I could think together with. But in those instances, the AI still seemed like an external system I was communicating with. It didn’t seem like me.

But then, one night while working on the post, I was rereading some of Elon’s quotes about this, and it suddenly clicked. The AI would be me. Fully. I got it.

Then I lost it. The next day, I tried to explain the epiphany to a friend and I left us both confused. I was back in “Wait, but it kind of wouldn’t really be me, it would be communicating with me” land. Since then, I’ve dipped into and out of the idea, never quite able to hold it for long. The best thing I can compare it to is having a moment when it actually makes sense that time is relative and space-time is a single fabric. For a second, it seems intuitive that time moves slower when you’re moving really fast. And then I lose it. As I typed those sentences just now, it did not seem intuitive.

The idea of being AI is especially tough because it combines two mind-numbing concepts—the brain interface and the abilities it would give you, and artificial general intelligence. Humans today are simply not equipped to understand either of those things, because as imaginative as we think we are, our imaginations only really have our life experience as their toolkit, and these concepts are both totally novel. It’s like trying to imagine a color you’ve never seen.

That’s why when I hear Elon talk with conviction about this stuff, I’m somewhere in between deeply believing it myself and taking his word for it. I go back and forth. But given that he’s someone who probably found space-time intuitive when he was seven, and given that he’s someone who knows how to colonize Mars, I’m inclined to listen hard to what he says.

And what he says is that this is all about bandwidth. It’s obvious why bandwidth matters when it comes to making a wizard hat useful. But Elon believes that when it comes to interfacing with AI, high bandwidth isn’t just preferred, but actually fundamental to the prospect of being AI, versus simply using AI. Here he is walking me through his thoughts:

The challenge is the communication bandwidth is extremely slow, particularly output. When you’re outputting on a phone, you’re moving two thumbs very slowly. That’s crazy slow communication. … If the bandwidth is too low, then your integration with AI would be very weak. Given the limits of very low bandwidth, it’s kind of pointless. The AI is just going to go by itself, because it’s too slow to talk to. The faster the communication, the more you’ll be integrated—the slower the communication, the less. And the more separate we are—the more the AI is “other”—the more likely it is to turn on us. If the AIs are all separate, and vastly more intelligent than us, how do you ensure that they don’t have optimization functions that are contrary to the best interests of humanity? … If we achieve tight symbiosis, the AI wouldn’t be “other”—it would be you and with a relationship to your cortex analogous to the relationship your cortex has with your limbic system.

Elon sees communication bandwidth as the key factor in determining our level of integration with AI, and he sees that level of integration as the key factor in how we’ll fare in the AI world of our future:

We’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet—you know, like a house cat or something—or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI.

Then, a second later:

A house cat’s a good outcome, by the way.

Without really understanding what kinds of AI will be around when we reach the age of superintelligent AI, the idea that human-AI integration will lend itself to the protection of the species makes intuitive sense. Our vulnerabilities in the AI era will come from bad people in control of AI or rogue AI not aligned with human values. In a world in which millions of people control a little piece of the world’s aggregate AI power—people who can think with AI, can defend themselves with AI, and who fundamentally understand AI because of their own integration with it—humans are less vulnerable. People will be a lot more powerful, which is scary, but like Elon said, if everyone is Superman, it’s harder for any one Superman to cause harm on a mass scale—there are lots of checks and balances. And we’re less likely to lose control of AI in general because the AI on the planet will be so widely distributed and varied in its goals.

But time is of the essence here—something Elon emphasized:

The pace of progress in this direction matters a lot. We don’t want to develop digital superintelligence too far before being able to do a merged brain-computer interface.

When I thought about all of this, one reservation I had was whether a whole-brain interface would be enough of a change to make integration likely. I brought this up with Elon, noting that there would still be a vast difference between our thinking speed and a computer’s thinking speed. He said:

Yes, but increasing bandwidth by orders of magnitude would make it better. And it’s directionally correct. Does it solve all problems? No. But is it directionally correct? Yes. If you’re going to go in some direction, well, why would you go in any direction other than this?

And that’s why Elon started Neuralink.

He started Neuralink to accelerate our pace into the Wizard Era—into a world where he says that “everyone who wants to have this AI extension of themselves could have one, so there would be billions of individual human-AI symbiotes who, collectively, make decisions about the future.” A world where AI really could be of the people, by the people, for the people.


I’ll guess that right now, some part of you believes this insane world we’ve been living in for the past 38,000 words could really maybe be the future—and another part of you refuses to believe it. I’ve got a little of both of those going on too.

But the insanity part of it shouldn’t be the reason it’s hard to believe. Remember—George Washington died when he saw 2017. And our future will be unfathomably shocking to us. The only difference is that things are moving even faster now than they were in George’s time.

The concept of being blown away by the future speaks to the magic of our collective intelligence—but it also speaks to the naivety of our intuition. Our minds evolved in a time when progress moved at a snail’s pace, so that’s what our hardware is calibrated to. And if we don’t actively override our intuition—the part of us that reads about a future this outlandish and refuses to believe it’s possible—we’re living in denial.

The reality is that we’re whizzing down a very intense road to a very intense place, and no one knows what it’ll be like when we get there. A lot of people find it scary to think about, but I think it’s exciting. Because of when we happened to be born, instead of just living in a normal world like normal people, we’re living inside of a thriller movie. Some people take this information and decide to be like Elon, doing whatever they can to help the movie have a happy ending—and thank god they do. Because I’d rather just be a gawking member of the audience, watching the movie from the edge of my seat and rooting for the good guys.

Either way, I think it’s good to climb a tree from time to time to look out at the view and remind ourselves what a time this is to be alive. And there are a lot of trees around here. Meet you at another one sometime soon.


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The clean version of this post, appropriate for all ages, is free to read here.

To print this post or read it offline, try the PDF.


More Wait But Why stuff:

If you want to understand AI better, here’s my big AI explainer.

And here’s the full Elon Musk post series:

Part 1, on Elon: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man
Part 2, on Tesla: How Tesla Will Change the World
Part 3, on SpaceX: How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars
Part 4, on the thing that makes Elon so effective: The Chef and the Cook: Musk’s Secret Sauce

If you’re sick of science and tech, check these out instead:

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

Religion for the Nonreligious

The Tail End

Thanks to the Neuralink team for answering my 1,200 questions and explaining things to me like I’m five. Extra thanks to Ben Rapoport, Flip Sabes, and Moran Cerf for being my question-asking go-tos in my many dark moments of despair.

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